Last month we had an intriguing inquiry from a WERU listener. This person was curious about why so many pigeons are found throughout our more built-up towns and cities, and yet only a few minutes from these places, nestled among the trees, only native mourning doves find their way to winter birdfeeders and never pigeons. To unearth the answer to this great question, we must first look to the life history of these two feathered marvels.
In parts of Canada, where many of these finches would happily spend their winters, there is a particularly poor food crop this year. Alder and birch seeds, mountain ash fruits, spruce and other conifer seeds are in low supply this year—as happens from time to time. This food scarcity drives these birds that are adapted to those food types further south to places like Maine where the food crop isn’t as bad this year.
There is one animal above all that strikes the most fear and worry into the hearts of farmers and gardeners. They thieve from our carefully tended vegetable gardens, whistle in alarm at the mere sight of us, bolt like a sack of muffins to the safety of their dens, and even allude our most devious schemes for their removal. And yet, on the second of February each year, we bow to the mystical powers of the “Seer of Seers”, the fluffy and foreboding, the earthy oracle, the paunchy plunderer: the groundhog.
Short-tailed weasels are year-round Maine residents, but we tend to call them ermines in the winter when they change from light brown with pale bellies to pure white with black-tipped tails. The unusually bright white quality of their winter fur made ermines especially desirable for the royalty of yesteryear who cherished their skins to create those famous black-spotted bright white fur collars and trim on their red velvet capes.
May and June are two months that are almost entirely defined by frogs—their cheery chorus sounds from vernal pools and along pond edges hoping to entice a mate to come for a swim. This time of year, however, we instead sit in relative quiet but for the howl of wind, the rattle of bare tree branches, the roar of a woodstove, the moan of ice, and the somber call of a raven. During this time of year, one might wonder the fate of the subject of today’s episode, our flipper-footed friends: frogs.
Finding animal tracks, listening to the nighttime calls of barred owl pairs, or spotting a perfectly camouflaged snowshoe hare or ermine offer a sense of excitement and change during a season that might otherwise feel still and unending. But today I’m here to argue in defense of the excitement of plants, and one plant in particular whose seed heads have curled up into what may look like a perfect tiny bird nest on the end of a stem: Queen Anne’s lace.
“Frozen” is the operative term that can be applied to our neck of the woods for the coming months, though it is easy to keep warm and stave off the cabin nasties when shuffling across the frosty world on a pair of skates, skis, or snowshoes. Now that we are in the depths of winter, folks will be taking advantage of the peculiar physical properties of water as it freezes into the subject of today’s topic: ice.
Not many people would imagine Maine being a warm respite in the winter, but to snowy owls, Maine is the perfect vacation. This large, mostly white owl spends summers living and nesting on the Arctic tundra where it eats small animals such as lemmings, voles, and ptarmigan. Come winter, when these primary food sources are as scarce as sunlight on the Arctic landscape, snowy owls come south for more abundant food and to catch some rays.
For those of you with a fondness for feasting on fine fish, you are probably quite familiar with various members of the cod family, which scientists refer to as the Gadidae. These gadiformes include many of the common firm, white-fleshed saltwater fish that one can find at a local monger like cod, haddock, pollock, red hake, white hake, and silver hake. Those among us that are ice fisher-folk might also be well acquainted with the cusk, or burbot, which is the only freshwater gadiform. But the tomcod live a life both in the salt and freshwater of our coastal waterways.